A group of youth demonstrators marching from Cannonball River to the Oceti Sakowin Campground. (Photo: Jacqueline Keeler)

A group of youth demonstrators marching from Cannonball River to the Oceti Sakowin Campground. Photo by Jacqueline Keeler (@jfkeeler).

Sandy Tolan is headed back to North Dakota, where he recently covered the protests by members of the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters against the proposed 1,172-mile Dakota Access oil pipeline.

In his October 18 story in Salon.com, Sandy describes the tense standoff between police and the thousands of protesters who have set up camp at the site. Opposition to the $3.78 billion project, nicknamed “the black snake,” has brought together indigenous, environmental, and climate activists around the world.

“At times I felt like I was back reporting in the West Bank, not in the Northern Plains,” he writes.

You can also listen to an interview with Sandy on PRI’s Living on Earth, which includes sound he recorded at the site and clips of protest leaders.

One of Los Angeles’ NPR affiliates, KCRW, has launched Bear and Rux’s year-long multi-platform project about aging in the city’s working-class and immigrant neighborhoods. “Going Gray in LA: Stories of Aging along Broadway” is part of the station’s Independent Producer Project.

Latino elders enjoy the weekly dance at the Lincoln Heights Senior Center.

Latino elders enjoy the weekly dance at the Lincoln Heights Senior Center.

The first two radio stories (from the historic Latino neighborhood Lincoln Heights), a couple of photo essays, and some additional content is available on the project website.

Please check back every few weeks, as KCRW will be airing new stories and adding content to the website through next spring. “Going Gray in LA” is funded by the Eisner Foundation.

 

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Homelands co-founder Sandy Tolan, author of the book Children of the Stone, is touring the eastern U.S. this fall with the book’s protagonist, the Palestinian musician Ramzi Aburedwan. They’ll be joined by Ramzi’s Arab/French fusion ensemble Dal’Ouna.

As a boy, Ramzi threw stones at Israeli tanks in the occupied West Bank. Sandy’s critically acclaimed book describes how he grew up to build music schools for Palestinian children.

The tour celebrates the release of Children of the Stone in paperback. You can donate and learn more on the tour’s Indiegogo campaign page.

A girl from the Shipibo ethnic group plays in the Cantagallo neighborhood of Lima, Peru.

A girl from the Shipibo ethnic group plays in the Cantagallo neighborhood of Lima, Peru. Photo by Bear Guerra.

The photo above, from a 2015 story by Bear Guerra and Ruxandra Guidi published in Americas Quarterly, has won a prestigious American Photography award.

The piece, “Indigenous Residents of Lima’s Cantagallo Shantytown Confront an Uncertain Future,” describes how 200 families from an Amazonian group are facing eviction from their settlement along the polluted Rimac River in Peru’s capital. The families were pushed off their original territory in 2000 by logging and mining activities.

Bear and Rux have been collaborating for several years under the name Fonografia Collective. They recently moved from Quito, Ecuador, to Los Angeles to work on a year-long project about aging in LA for the public radio station KCRW.

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Residents of Caroline, in central New York, head to the voting booth in Town Board elections in November 2011. The vote would determine whether or not the town would allow fracking for natural gas. Photo by Jonathan Miller.

If the current presidential race has soured you on the democratic process, you might seek solace in the latest episode of Scene on Radio, an excellent podcast produced by our old pal John Biewen at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. The episode reprises two stories from Groundwork: Democracy Close to Home, an hour-long special hosted by NPR’s Scott Simon that first aired on public radio stations in July 2012.

The first piece, reported by John, dives deep into the heart of a small fishing community in Alaska as it searches for ways to respond to unimaginably big changes in the ocean on which it depends. The second piece, by our Jonathan Miller, follows the intense (and ultimately transformative) debate over fracking in a small upstate New York town.

Jonathan’s story starts at about 11 minutes. But listen to the whole thing; John’s piece is terrific.

 

TWWUcoverBritish businessman, adventurer, and author Richard Branson celebrated World Book Day with a list of “My top 65 books to read in a lifetime.” Weighing in at number 59 was Alan Weisman‘s bestseller The World Without Us.

The book, published by St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books, imagines a planet without people to examine how human beings have altered the earth. It was TIME’s number one nonfiction book of 2007 and a New York Times bestseller.

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Cecilia Vaisman at Iguazú Falls on the border of Brazil and her native Argentina in 1991.

Earlier this week we published the eulogy delivered by Sandy Tolan at a January 25 memorial event for Cecilia Vaisman at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Today we’re sharing the words of David Jackson, an investigative reporter with the Chicago Tribune who works with Ceci’s husband, Gary Marx. You can see and hear the entire celebration here.  

On Nicaragua’s Miskito coast, Cecilia Vaisman recorded the sound of the earth on a steamy morning, the war songs of arms-bearing Indians and the droll comments of American investors who had commandeered a powerboat to explore and exploit the region’s timber.

Her radio report from that faraway place captured a world divided into two tribes. Not indigenous people versus adventuring capitalists, but: those who listen and those who don’t.

It seems so obvious on a day like this. In the end, the only thing that gives value and meaning to our lives is the good we’ve done for others. The times we pulled the ribcage open to reach for the lamp glowing there and give every bit of its warmth and light to someone else.

Cecilia gifted all of us. Again and again, she taught us and taught this heedless, out-of-kilter world to stop, and listen.

The impassioned, charismatic teenager who mastered the double bass became the master journalist so deeply in step with a polyrhythmic planet.

She took us to the heart of Charlestown, Massachusetts, and trained our ears on the heavy footsteps of Carolyn Wren Shannon walking her childhood streets, and then Shannon’s frank, forlorn voice as she recalled the casually prejudiced Irish-Catholic home where she was raised to despise blacks… and then, that native daughter’s epiphany: “You can choose to be ignorant or you can choose to be fair,” Shannon told the dark-eyed reporter from National Public Radio.

In those virtuoso broadcasts, you heard little of the journalist’s own voice – courageous, curious, musical Ceci. You didn’t hear her own footsteps as she searched the town for Shannon, and then followed her for days. Her own pounding heart as Shannon gave truth a voice.

Ceci’s colleague Alan Weisman, who with others here co-founded the radio collective known as Homelands Productions, has described some of the intrepid journeys in which Ceci seemed to equip the planet with mics and massive earphones that bound together its most remote regions.

They lay awake in the grimy mountain tents of Freedom Fighters and listened to the guns clinking as one soldier and his soldier wife shared sex amid the endless war. And then, Alan said, she hauled hours and hours of raw audio feed back to her studio and immersed herself for days in that second, sonic world. There, she practiced a kind of alchemy, Alan said, turning the globe’s headlines into poetry and song.

Ceci gifted Medill, working tirelessly to teach students the hard-won lessons of her craft, to pass on to new generations her enduring values and wisdom. I marveled to hear a flock of stories from the first radio class on WBEZ: Ceci stayed so grounded, just beyond earshot, as their young voices lifted on the air like starlings at daybreak.

She brought together the luminous friends in this room – the investigators and artists, perennial students, warriors for justice and everyday exemplary souls – because she could turn a quickly arranged lunch into an hours-long, life-changing walk.

She leaves us to care for her beloved, noble Gary and the young poet named Ana Marx and the athlete who doesn’t yet know he’s a poet, Andres. Her wings are around them now.

Her gift was so great that it showed even in small gestures, at unexpected moments. Like the bright evening in mid-June, three months before her last day, when I walked Gary down to the car where she was waiting to pick him up from work and drive them to a concert picnic at Millennium Park. Thin and hobbled by pain she did not show, Ceci slid out of the front seat and took my hands in hers. I heard what was said in the smile that was hers alone.

Stop. Listen. Live, she said.

She said, Stop. Listen. Live.

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Cecilia Vaisman at work in Brazil while reporting for the “Vanishing Homelands” series. Cecilia died in September 2015 at age 54.

Family, friends, colleagues, and students gathered to celebrate the life and work of Cecilia Vaisman at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University on January 25, 2016. You can watch a video of the event here. Below are the remarks of Sandy Tolan, Ceci’s partner in Homelands Productions. 

My first memory of Cecilia Vaisman is outside NPR, the old M Street Shop, maybe 30 years ago. I was an independent radio producer living in Arizona, come to harangue editors.

Cecilia was working for All Things Considered then, just before she went to work with Weekend Edition, with Scott Simon. Anyway, we were heading with some others for a beer on the corner, two young reporters flush with the excitement of journalistic possibility. And getting RIGHT into it.

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about – maybe the trial of the church workers smuggling Salvadorans into the country, which I was working on. “That sounds GREAT, Sandy. That sounds super-interesting. That sounds AMAZING.”

Her passionate enthusiasm, her unwavering support, from day one. And maybe she talked about the street kids she had met in Rio while on assignment for NPR – her ability to open up her whole self and BECOME them. Part of her astonishing ability to transform herself, to enter someone else’s experience. As we walked toward the corner bar on 20th and M, little did I know such a deep collaboration, fellowship, friendship, kinship – witness to each other’s lives – would follow.

Soon Cecilia would join me, Nancy Postero, and Alan Weisman in a vast enterprise known as Vanishing Homelands – seven hours of documentaries, 400 hours of tape, 14 countries. In August 1990 we headed south from Tucson to Costa Rica. We drove two trucks filled with clothes, files, cassette tapes, and a few Sony TC-D5M stereo cassette recorders. With Dolby! And later Cecilia was present at the creation of Homelands Productions. And I’m here representing Homelands along with Alan, and our leader Jon Miller, and fellow Homelanders Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra, now based in Ecuador.

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Cecilia was remembered by her students as demanding, passionate, and supportive.

Of course there’s a lot to say about Cecilia’s tremendous creative gifts, and her remarkable ability, as Alan says, “to set current events to music.” It’s no coincidence that Cecilia played the bass. She even enlisted two Latin American musician friends to compose and perform the theme music for Vanishing Homelands.

But despite possessing these gifts in spades, Cecilia rarely allowed any of that to obscure her appreciation for silliness, her humane appreciation for the absurd, for playfulness in the midst of the most intense kind of work.  Her ability to keep it real, and fun.

There was a sloth. A sloth living in a tree in Costa Rica, at some forest resort where we Homelanders had convened for an IMPORTANT PRODUCTION MEETING. Everything was VERY IMPORTANT in those days. Everything was EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. We had to assess our production schedule, plan our next trips into the bush, check in with our editor back in Washington – Pat Flynn, who’s here today.

But Cecilia was drawn to the sloth. And then my attention was drawn to the sloth. Because I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a sloth, but this one had a little smile on its face, and it moved… very… slowly. With its… two… fingers. I’m going to go way… over… my time… if I keep this up. That thing must have moved two feet in an hour, I’m not kidding.

But what I remember is Cecilia’s understanding of the absurd juxtaposition of the VERY IMPORTANT MEETING of these rainforest journalists on the loose… with… the… sloth. So for the whole weekend Cec and I were meeting like this (two fingers), and Ceci with that laughter where she had to catch her breath – Ana has that – to the mild annoyance of our more serious colleagues.

Down in Costa Rica, Cecilia used to lead us, now and again, in the salute to the sun. I wasn’t down with this yoga thing back then. But it was her wisdom at work: back these guys off from all this intensity! SALUTE TO THE SUN.

And then a year later, back in Arizona, Prescott, near the end of Vanishing Homelands, we had decided to try to keep our little journalist collective together. But what to name ourselves? I remember Ceci standing at a whiteboard in our basement studio in Prescott, drawing up little figures alongside our various proposed names.

Next to “Boxcar Productions” she drew a little Depression-era tramp, maybe with one of those sticks with the clothes in a bundle. Finally after a very long list of ideas – “How about The People’s Productions? How about Righteous Truth Productions? HEY, how about just THE TRUTH productions!? – Shining Light in the Shadows Productions?!?!!” – we came up with something we liked. Lost Voices Productions!

Think about that, folks. This is for a radio production company. A friend pointed out that it sounded like we all had laryngitis. So we dropped the Vanishing and settled on Homelands. I remember Cecilia’s delight in the hilarity of all of that, her ability to see the absurd inside the serious.

So many of the stories we’ve been sharing in these days center around Cecilia’s effervescence. Her incredible life force. Her AMAZING ability to connect, support, ENTHUSE – “That’s just great, Sand, that sounds AMAZING…”

When someone so powerfully infused with life force, so humane, when such a beautiful person leaves you so too early – it is hard to make sense of it. There’s a question of fairness. This isn’t fair. This. Isn’t. Fair.

When my own father died at 49 when I was 18, I remember my anger at the unfairness of it all, and the confusion, trying to understand how such a life force left us so early. And at the memorial and celebration of his life, at our house in Milwaukee, on that cold February day in 1974, I remember a complete stranger walking up to me and offering me some unsolicited insight, which at the time I didn’t appreciate, wasn’t ready to hear. But I’ve thought of it more than a thousand times since then.

She said, as I stared at the floor, “You know, when someone you love dies, there is a giant hole. A hole so big you can’t move. You can’t take a single step. And then after a little while, the hole shrinks a little bit, and you can begin to at least walk around the hole. And then it shrinks a little bit, and a little bit more, and a little bit more. But it never goes away. That hole is with you for your life.”

And that is not all bad. Because we have example. We have inspiration. In our case, here today, we have not only Cecilia’s compassion, enthusiasm, her life force, her playfulness, her humor, her generosity, to give and give and give, with every last ounce of her strength. Cecilia leaves us with so much inspiration. So many things from her that we can choose to aspire to in ourselves. And one more of those things is kindness.

I want to close with a few lines from “Kindness,” a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.